The Spades Today

As John Welch takes the reins at Spade Ranches, he works to improve operations at this century-old Texas outfit. But he's well-aware that many ranch chores still work best when done the cowboy way.

John Welch loads his bay gelding into his trailer, unbuckles his chaps and climbs into his white Ford pickup. As he steers along the curved gravel road leading out of the ranch, he dials his cell phone-first checking in with his secretary at the office, and then calling to check prices on cattle futures.

John Anderson, the landowner and ranch manager for this division of the Spade Ranches, near Gail, Texas, follows behind in his truck and trailer. He and Welch eat lunch together in town, then Welch heads back to the office in Lubbock, a few hours away.

Welch might be the only chief executive officer whose heels regularly jingle as he walks into his office. But part of his job as president and CEO of Spade Ranches is helping his ranch managers work cattle.

"It's difficult to make time [for ranch work], " Welch said. "When you're doing it, you're thinking, 'You know, we could hire some day-work to do what I'm doing today.' But I think that I'm doing more than just labor. I'm getting a feel for the country and a feel for the men. It helps if, when you show up, the men understand that you respect their horsemanship, respect their ability to handle cattle. So I think it's really worth it to make that time."

Welch doesn't deny he enjoys cowboying a few times a week. But it isn't easy to get away when his office staff includes only himself and a secretary, not to mention that driving out to one of the Spade's ranch locations takes at least two hours. Hauling to their ranch in the Texas Panhandle takes roughly five hours.

Spade Ranches is made up of five divisions sprinkled throughout West Texas. Borden Spade is near Gail, Wagon Creek Spade is close to Throckmorton, North Spade is near Turkey, Panhandle Spade is outside of Canadian, and Renderbrook Spade sits south of Colorado City.

Renderbrook Spade is the original ranch headquarters. Isaac Ellwood, from DeKalb, Illinois, purchased the 160,000 acres of land in 1889. He soon began running cattle he bought from a man named J.F. "Spade" Evans. The spade-shaped brand they carried inspired the name of Ellwood's new ranch.

Ellwood had developed and marketed a certain type of barbed wire. His ingenuity led to the founding of Spade Ranches, and established an innovative mindset that's been passed on for generations. Spade Ranches was one of the first cattle producers to employ rotational grazing, control brush, reseed pastures and crossbreed its cattle. In the 1970s, the ranch imported the Simmental breed, utilized artificial insemination and embryo transfer, and developed a rotational breeding program using four cattle breeds.

While leaders of the Spades haven't been afraid to try something different, much of the operation is still handled in traditional ways. They still gather cattle horseback, brand by dragging calves to the fire, and even continue to pasture-breed their mares. Welch explains that their methods are based on efficiency and economic feasibility. That approach has helped the Spades survive for 117 years, all the while keeping ties to its traditional cowboy roots.

To read the rest of this story, pick up the December 2006 issue of Western Horseman.